It is rare indeed to look to professional athletes for moral guidance. We learned long ago that the extraordinary talents they possess are manifest primarily in the physical realm. It should be no surprise that people who are worshipped by millions and paid enormous sums of money to play games might have difficulty in the moral sphere.
This problem is not limited to athletes, and helps explain why our Sages—while appreciating the tremendous benefits of wealth and its attendant power—were leery of both, fearing the harm they could do to one’s character. When one is blessed with great wealth, one must work harder and harder on moral development.
Professional athletes, perhaps more than others, have the capacity to use their enormous influence for the benefit of society. And thankfully, many are actually involved in various charitable endeavors. Sandy Koufax, in refusing to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, likely had a greater impact on the Jewish people than even the most inspiring of Yom Kippur services.
Gil Meche of the Kansas City Royals retired this week. It is rare when the retirement of a career 84-83 pitcher toiling for a last-place club merits much coverage, especially in an article devoted to Jewish business ethics. But this was no typical retirement. He retired to ensure that he would not be paid the $12,400,000 he was guaranteed for the final year of his contract. "When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it,” Mr. Meche explained. “Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad….Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again."
The baseball world was stunned. When a team signs a player, they expect to pay him; collecting oodles of money regardless of performance is, sadly, part of sports culture (and many other cultures, as well). Collecting such pay may be perfectly legal, but it falls short of the standard for those who aspire to a life of moral excellence.
The Talmud, commenting on the verse, “he speaks truthfully in his heart” (Psalms 15) relates a story of Rav Safra, a fourth-century Sage. Rav Safra was approached by someone interested in purchasing an item from him. The prospective buyer walked up to Rav Safra and offered him a certain sum of money for this item, but Rav Safra didn’t respond. When his original offer was ignored, the buyer upped the offer, and was again greeted by silence. Finally, Rav Safra broke his silence to announce that he would accept the original offer, explaining that he had been reciting the shema and could not respond, even though he would have accepted the original offer. Despite the fact that he had no legal obligation to do so, Rav Safra insisted on making good his acceptance of the original offer, the one he accepted “in his heart”.
In a society that is governed by supply and demand and intense competition for perceived talent, salaries for executive positions are often many hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars above that of the average worker. Whether the much greater salaries paid to movie stars, athletes and CEOs as compared to brain surgeons, teachers and social workers reflects the scarcity of the former as compared to the latter or whether this pay inequity occurs because we truly value the former more, I will leave for you to ponder.